With enemies like Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Palestinian people may not need friends.
The Israeli prime minister, cheered on by the United States president, says he will annex Palestinian lands that the Israeli state occupied in 1967. He was supposed to begin on 1 July, but so far this remains a threat, not a reality.
If annexation happens, its aim will be to ensure that Palestinians never determine their destiny in their own country. Its effect may be the opposite. The Israeli state and Trump may find that, in their attempt to put the final seal on Palestinian hopes for freedom and justice, they have given the fight for justice in Palestine its biggest boost for a long time.
Annexation would make little difference, if any, to the lives of Palestinians. In theory, it would mean that they no longer inhabit their own territory and would be at the mercy of Israel. But as Palestinian analysts have been pointing out, this is already their reality.
The land set aside for Palestinians that would be annexed – only some of it is on the chopping black now, although that could change – is only 22% of historic Palestine. The Palestinians who inhabit it are subject to occupation by the Israeli state, which does what it likes to them. It has settled hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis there, built a concentration camp-like wall through the little land Palestinians still own and used force to control Palestinian movement. To travel even short distances, Palestinians must stand in line, often for hours, at checkpoints where they are bullied by Israeli soldiers.
It is difficult to see how annexation could make this worse. While international law says that as an occupying power, the Israeli state must recognise Palestinian rights, it knows it can do what it likes – if Israel violates them, the US and Europe will either support it or complain but do nothing. The Israeli state can take as much Palestinian land as it wants and do whatever it pleases to Palestinian people, and it will face no consequences.
Palestinian analyst Tareq Baconi says the concrete effect of annexation would be to “harm directly up to 10%” of Palestinians living in the West Bank, one of the areas occupied since 1967. He does not say how their reality would change but even if he is right, at worst 6% of Palestinians living in the occupied territories would face harm if the Israeli state annexes all of this land.
Palestinian academic and activist Yousef Munayyer says annexation would be “largely a formality that would codify in Israeli law a reality that Palestinians have been living … for several generations now”.
While annexation will not change the lives of the vast majority of Palestinians, it could deprive the Israeli state of important political assets.
At least since Israel and a section of Palestinian leadership signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, the battle for justice for Palestine has been hamstrung by two related myths.
The first is that there is a “peace process” in which Israeli and Palestinian leaders are trying to reach a compromise. This has never been true. Some Israeli governments have negotiated with (some) Palestinian leaders, that is how Oslo came to be signed. But they did not negotiate in good faith.
Aside from leaving Palestinians only a fraction of their land, Oslo, hailed at the time as historic, left the important questions, including something as basic as the borders of the Israeli state, open. Since Netanyahu’s current reign began more than a decade ago, the Israeli side has not even pretended to negotiate.
Despite this, a pretence has been maintained that a process waiting to happen is lurking just beyond our line of sight. This sham is used repeatedly to appease the dominating power, lest it turn its back on a “process” that exists only in the minds of those to whom it is important to maintain the fiction.
Annexation would deny this convenient fantasy credibility. A process in which one side changes the most basic rules while ignoring the other is not about compromise, it is revealed as what it always was, a way of getting the weaker to submit to the stronger.
The second is that it punctures the stated reason for the “peace process”, the “two-state solution”. This is meant to make both sides happy by ensuring that each has a state. It sounds fair until you compare it to this country’s history.
If you impose the Oslo agreement, which was meant to create a “two-state solution”, on to a map, you see a small Palestinian state broken up into fragments surrounded by areas under Israeli control. To South Africans, an arrangement in which the original inhabitants are “given” a sliver of their own country, broken into bits to suit the dominating power, is familiar. We called the slivers Bantustans and the system that created it apartheid.
Here, apartheid was recognised as the problem. The “two-state solution” sees it as the answer, a reality not lost on Palestinian intellectuals who question why they should accept apartheid as a source of freedom.
The “two-state” formula also presents a view to the world that makes it more difficult for Palestinians to attract the support across the globe that so strengthened the fight against apartheid and which they badly need.
If the “solution” is two states for two people, the conflict is a battle between ethnic groups over land. That is how the negotiations have always been portrayed. Why should fair-minded people take sides between the two? The fact that one has established a state for itself alone – the Israeli Parliament recently passed a law declaring the country the “nation state of the Jewish people”, reducing Palestinians to rightless visitors – on the land of another and is using it to dominate the original inhabitants is hidden.
Annexation damages the “two-state solution” even more fatally than it does the peace process. If the Israeli state insists that all the land Oslo allocated to Palestinians is its own, the imagined Palestinian state cannot exist.
Annexation would destroy the two-state illusion and show the conflict as what it has always been, one between a group that uses the state to dominate others and those who it dominates. This would make it much easier for Palestinians to win support everywhere, but particularly in the country whose protection is essential to Israel, the US.
This is why the annexation threat has sent most supporters of the Israeli state in the US into a frenzy. Whether they are liberal Zionists – supporters of a less rigid ethnic state – or mainstream lobbyists, they know annexation will speed up a reality that has been growing in the US for some time, that of declining public support for the Israeli state. They know also that if US politicians ever decide that there is political mileage in demanding that the Israeli state stop dominating Palestinians, it would be forced to the table to negotiate real change.
Annexation aims to ensure that the Israeli state can dominate for all time. But if it goes ahead, it may begin the end for the domination it is meant to preserve.